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Kizhi Island in the wilds of northern Russia houses a remarkable open-air assemblage of historic vernacular timber buildings.

Majestically they rise up on the small island of Kizhi; an architectural ensemble of timber churches gracefully crowned by an array of cupolas, adorned with aspen shingles. For centuries, if not millennia, the small, outstretched Kizhi Island in Lake Onega has attracted attention. Located in the now Republic of Karelia in the Russian north, this once pagan ritual playground today houses a state-run museum of the region's monumental timber architecture. This includes a group of wooden churches built here in the eighteenth century and a later bell tower, as well as Orthodox-sanctified structures of crossroads and chapels that were relocated here. Together with impressively ornamented peasant houses from the nineteenth century (also relocated), the Kizhi outdoor museum allows visitors to experience the ancient cultures and crafts of the Russian north; externally expressed in wood, internally, in elaborate woven and embroidered textiles.

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And the visitors are numerous. During the summer season of 2003, 50 guides were working at the Kizhi museum, shepherding around equal numbers of Russian and foreign visitors arriving on some 700 ships. Most are cruise liners using the old waterways to explore Russia's architectural heritage. From the landing station, you first see the buildings from afar, and as you trek through the green, treeless island, you quickly become convinced it was worth the effort to reach them. 'The French groups want to pick flowers', says tourist guide Galina Gorchakova, 'until we warn them about the snakes', she adds. 'And the Italians often ask about where the lavatories were inside the peasant houses.' Until relatively recently, a typical Karelian lavatory was situated in a small, separate structure, similar to the 'banya' or bath house. The structure had a hole in the floor and the waste was used as ecological fertilizer.

Kizhi was a natural parish for Russian colonizers with churches built here from the twelfth century of which nothing remains today. The five-storey Church of Transfiguration dating from 1714, its lower neighbour the Intercession Church (1764) and the belltower chapel erected in 1874, were built on much older sancitified ground. You wonder why those anonymous handicraft carpenters of the eightcenth century chose to build these extraordinary wooden churches out in Kizhi. The answer lies in the founding of Petrozavodsk by Peter the Great. Plentiful iron ore, vast coniferous forests, a ready supply of labour and a network of waterways through the lakes to the Neva river and the Baltic encouraged Peter to establish an arms workshop on the Lake Onega shore to supply cannons and balls for his wars against the Swedes. Petrozavodsk, 'Peter's workshop', was founded in 1703 and ten years later the Church of Transfiguration was raised, providing a spiritual beacon in the Karelian wilderness. Last year, Peter's secular stone cities of St Petersburg (AR December 2000) and Petrozavodsk both celebrated their 300 year jubilee.

The 37m high Church of Transfiguration adopts an octahedral plan on stone foundations which forms the basis of the five-storey composition. Adjoining rectangular extensions symbolizing the four corners of the world provide additional stability and two smaller further extensions rise above the main octahedron. The carinate ceilings are crowned by 23 different sized cupolas sheathed in carved aspen shingles. The Church of Transfiguration is a 'cold' temple, with services conducted only in warm weather. The structure is made from pine cut in winter and dried for three to four years and the church was originally built using the dry method, without moss infilling gaps in the timber and without double doors. Since 1980 the church has been closed and at the start of the '90s the pine structure was reinforced with a metal frame. The 30 000 aspen shingles are replaced on both churches every 35-45 years. Aspen is known to absorb moisture and dry up quickly in the sun, first turning golden then finally silver.

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The carved crown of the Intercession Church hovers in the air beside its taller neighbour, creating harmony between the two with its single-storey, multi-cupola form. It was built 50 years later, in 1764, and is a 'warm' temple, recently opened again for religious services. Built as an elongated rectangle with a central axis, it differs from the Church of Transfiguration. The rounded corners of the refectory were intended to withstand the harsh Karelian frosts. The icons of the Church of Transfiguration have been moved to the Petrozavodsk Museum of Fine Arts, but Intercession Church has retained its iconostasis, renovating it on site. The churches and adjacent graveyard are enclosed by a timber wall concealing water tubes for round the clock fire protection.

Walking along the paths at the Kizhi out-door museum, you also come across the tiny church of the Resurrection of St Lazarus, moved to the island from the Murom monastery. It is believed to have been erected in the late fourteenth century and thought to be the oldest wooden building in Russia. Protected by Unesco since 1991, Kizhi's collection of precious historic monuments awaits gradual restoration while attracting an ever increasing number of visitors.

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Title Annotation:View from Kizhi Island
Author:Fagerstrom, Christina
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Jan 1, 2004
Words:844
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